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Juco | Story | 3/18/2015

Bickford painting corners for CSN

Kenny Bristow     
Photo: Perfect Game

On a windy, end-of-winter Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City, a No. 1-ranked junior college pitching prospect may be the last thing you’d expect to see. 
At Cate Field, however, home to the Bruins of Salt Lake Community College, former first round draft pick, Phil Bickford of the College of Southern Nevada, was taking the hill with hopes of getting a win for his team and improving his personal record to 4-1 on the season.

The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Bickford has grown accustomed to drawing an abundance of scouts every time he takes the bump, but on this afternoon, it seemed he could simply be a member of the team and go out have some fun.

Far from the 20-year old's mind was his personal status as one of the best pitching prospects in the college ranks. Instead, the athletic, long-legged hurler with the curly blonde locks flowing from his cap was focused only on dominating the Bruin lineup and helping his squad earn a victory.

In the Coyotes’ 4-1 extra-inning win, Bickford did not earn the W, but he pitched well enough to do so. He went five innings, of the scheduled seven-inning game, scattering three hits and surrendering only a single unearned run. He walked two batters, one of which was the only Bruin to cross the plate during his watch.

Despite the workmanlike performance of the sophomore, it was his 12 strikeouts of the 19 would-be hitters he faced that stood out. 
Bickford’s 90-plus mph fastball, in conjunction with his ever-improving slider, had the Bruins guessing, especially during a stretch that saw him sit down nine straight batters.

Only in the fifth inning did Salt Lake capture a rare run on the tall righty. Not that that would be an indication of his day, but that fifth frame would be his last work on the afternoon as he exited a 1-1 tie, leaving it up to his bullpen to pull out the victory.

Today was a really good day. I like the results,” said Bickford after the game. “The slider, in the beginning, was a little off, but I found it. Just making sure to stay on top of it and throw it a lot with the fastball.”

Bickford has a changeup in his arsenal, along with a pair of fastballs and a slider, yet he decided not to go to it much in this outing.

I’m really pleased how well the slider is coming along,” Bickford added. “There hasn’t been a lot of opportunity to use the changeup. We keep working on it. It’s one of the secondary pitches that I need to keep down in the zone and that’s really happening with the slider right now.

I’m really just working on commanding both sides of the plate. Getting ahead in the counts, knowing what to throw next and just gaining confidence in my secondary stuff.”

Bickford, from Newbury Park, Calif., has been a top prospect since his prep days at Oaks Christian High School in Westlake Village. He’s always been a pitcher he said, but in the early days enjoyed hitting as an everyday first baseman.

I actually got my first callup as a freshman to be a hitter,” Bickford recalled. “But it wasn’t long after that when my coach was like, ‘you’re just gonna pitch now.’ I was cool with that because I really loved pitching. It’s been a blessing to be able to work with and learn from the kind of players I always looked up to. I knew around then, yeah, this was something I could do.”

He was drafted in the first round by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013, but went unsigned and decided to go to school and play ball at Cal State Fullerton. 
As a member of the Titans, the freshman went 6-3 in 10 starts and was third on the staff with 76 innings pitched. During his time at Fullerton, he continued to leave little doubt why he was worthy of the attention from the major leagues.

Imagine how happy the coaches at Southern Nevada were when word came early in the fall that the 2014 Perfect Game Summer Collegiate National Player of the Year was coming to school in Clark County.

Right from day one, I just realized how much chemistry was on this team,” Bickford explained. “It’s a really cool thing when everybody gets along and has each other’s back and really just wants to win. From the coaches on down, we just want to win.”

That’s pretty humble talk from an athlete at the young age of 20 years old, who has found himself on the national baseball radar.

CSN Sports Information Director, Andrew Farrar is impressed with the maturity of the big righthander.

He’s just the nicest kid,” Farrar gushed. “From the time he got here he’s been nothing short of a great teammate. (He) treats everybody politely and wants to be your friend. When we painted our fences before the season he was the first one out there with a paint brush.”

It must be quite an asset for Coyote head coach, Nick Garritano, to have such a nice young man in his rotation. One grounded enough to help paint the fences yet wicked enough to paint the corners with a 93 mph fastball.

Phil pitched well today,” Garritano said. “Would have liked to gotten him a couple more runs, but that’s the way it goes for him sometimes. But, when he’s dominant, like he was today, we always have the chance to win.”

Winning is what Bickford says he wants to focus on right now. Not the path he’s taken to get to where he is today and not the next MLB draft where he will surely be a first round selection again. A lightning rod is a lightning rod, though, and Bickford has all the traits of becoming a pro.

With all the resources necessary at his fingertips, including the tools that project him as a major league reliever at least, it will be up to him to continue to grow as the PG No. 1 JUCO prospect in the country.

Right now I’m just focused on a day at a time with this ball club,” Bickford said. “The draft is in the future and I really don’t let it cross my mind. Obviously, you think about it sometimes because it’s there, but it isn’t changing anything I’m doing here with this team. I mean it when I say it, I’m all about helping this team and getting an opportunity to win a ring.

That’s what it’s all about right now.”

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